Why the Music of Bassist and Composer Charles Mingus Still Resonates 100 Years After His Birth

The music of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who was born 100 years ago and died in 1979, continues to challenge musicians.

By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Who was Charles Mingus? Let the jazz bassist and composer tell you in his own words: “Charles Mingus is a musician. Mongrel musician who plays beautiful. Who plays ugly. Who plays lovely. Who plays masculine. Who plays feminine. Who plays music. Who plays all sounds: Loud, soft, unheard sounds. Sounds, sounds, sounds. Solid sounds. Sounds, sounds. A musician who just loves to play with sound.”

On the 100th anniversary of his birth (April 22) in the then-sleepy desert town of Nogales, Arizona, near the Mexican border, those sounds continue to captivate, to inspire, to resonate. His music has been recorded by the Mingus Big Band, Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, and the Kronos Quartet, among others. Recent reissues include Acoustic Sounds’ high-definition vinyl pressing of Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, the bassist’s last major studio recording of the 1960s; Lionel Hampton Presents the Music of Charles Mingus, Mingus’ last recording as a session player; a remastered and expanded CD of 1974’s Mingus at Carnegie Hall; and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s audiophile edition of the 1959 jazz classic Mingus Ah Um.

“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”

—Charles Mingus

This year, the music world will honor Mingus—who died in 1979 of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—at a series of events, including the 14th annual Charles Mingus Festival, a two-day concert series and high-school jazz-band competition presented by the Charles Mingus Institute scheduled, at press time, to be held February 19 and 20; a Mingus Big Band concert April 8 at the Kennedy Center; and a centennial celebration directed by Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center April 22–23.

The 14th annual Charles Mingus Festival, a two-day concert series and high-school jazz-band competition presented by the Charles Mingus Institute was livestreamed Feb. 19–20.

“Mingus is probably even more relevant now than when he was alive—and for a good reason,” says music historian Ted Gioia, who wrote eloquently about Mingus in his recently revised and authoritative anthology The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press). “He was the first major jazz artist to blend together the entire tradition, from New Orleans to avant-garde, in a single integrated style. Just consider the fact that Charles Mingus, at various points in his career, played in bands led by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker—in other words, he absorbed the whole history and scope of the music in direct contact with the masters. Nowadays, jazz students try to do the same thing at music schools. Balancing old and new is still a challenge, the biggest of them all, but who did it better than Charles Mingus?”

A Spontaneous Composer

The Black Sanctified churches of his hometown introduced Mingus to music, but it was an early radio broadcast of Duke Ellington that provided what Mingus would later describe as “a religious experience.” After his family moved to Watts, a predominantly working-class Black community in Los Angeles, Mingus shifted his attention to classical training. He studied sight-reading and the trombone before settling on the cello. But he soon learned the limitations racial bias exacted on musicians. Childhood friend Buddy Collette, who went on to become a distinguished jazz saxophonist, encouraged Mingus to switch to double bass, arguing that a Black musician could not find work in a classical orchestra. “You’re Black—you’ll never make it in classical music no matter how good you are,” he reportedly said. “If you want to play, you’ve got to play a Negro instrument.”

Mingus Ah Um record cover

So, at 16, Mingus began learning bass with Red Callender and went on to study with a bassist from the New York Philharmonic, eager to “scare all other bass players to death,” he recounts in his (semi-fictional) autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. His classical leanings are evident on his improvised arrangement of “Adagio Ma Non Troppo,” a third-stream (classical and jazz fusion) track from the 1972 album Let My Children Hear Music. (The arrangement title comes from the Italian term for “slowly, but not too much.”) “If you like Beethoven, Bach, or Brahms, that’s okay,” Mingus once said. “They were all pencil composers. I always wanted to be a spontaneous composer.”


His risk taking took him to positions with some of the biggest jazz bands of the 1940s and ’50s—Duke Ellington found him too bold and fired Mingus, only to team up later with the bassist and drummer Max Roach on the classic Blue Note album Money Jungle. His work as a bandleader, composer, and arranger was no less daring. His music—sometimes dismissed as organized chaos—often exhibited beautiful melodies and was driven by his expansive imagination and a desire to make a positive statement about politics and race. You sense that eloquent side on Mingus, his 1979 collaboration with folk icon Joni Mitchell, recorded shortly before his death.

Mingus and band on a Belgian TV show in 1964 (colorized)

“Mingus—the man and the music—was larger than life, unpredictable, paranoid, tender, angry, romantic, declamatory, and violent,” music historian Grover Sales wrote in Jazz: America’s Classical Music. “Many of his best works sprang from passions of the moment; the death of Lester Young prompted the agonizing dirge ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.’ Segregationist Arkansas Gov. Faubus was lampooned in ‘Fables of Faubus,’ whose farcical theme was punctuated with Mingus’ savage cries of ‘Why is he so sick and ridiculous?’ He claimed he could not play his ‘Haitian Fight Song’ without thinking of racial prejudice. His terrifying, violence-prone anger at the plight of Black Americans spilled into pieces entitled ‘Meditations on Integration,’ ‘Prayer for Passive Resistance,’ and ‘Put Me in that Dungeon.’ 

“Mingus aimed to make every performance an emotional blood bath. His flirtations with atonality and clashing dissonance sought to extend the frontiers of jazz, to the discomfort of more conservative ears.”

And while the jazz world has caught up to Mingus, to some extent, his compositions continue to challenge musicians. “With many things, he was way ahead of the time, but now some of those things are commonplace in the modern jazz language, like non-harmonic notes, chromaticism, shifting tempos, and so on,” says bassist Boris Kozlov, the director of the Grammy-winning Mingus Big Band. Still, Kozlov points to the difficulty of the bass lines in such Mingus compositions as “Children’s Hour of Dream” and “Little Royal Suite.”

“I’m still drawn to the immediacy and passion with which he wrote and played,” he adds, “also the bluesy call-and-response component of his works. That is always present in his songs.”

A Master of Counterpoint

Mingus chafed at being called a jazz composer and disparaged the term “jazz” altogether. “Don’t call me a jazz musician,” he said in 1969. “The word jazz means… discrimination, second-class citizenship, the back-of-the-bus bit.” Accordingly, his music moved beyond the confines of traditional jazz. The depth of his compositions became evident when, in 1993, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the Mingus archives. Jon Newsom, chief of the library’s music division, told the New York Times that the acquisition was the most important of its kind in the library’s history. The papers, which include several hundred compositions, would be difficult to quantify, but he described them as “one very prolific musician’s lifework.” The library has the papers of many other American composers, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and John Philip Sousa, as well as the recordings of Duke Ellington.


“[Mingus] was a unique contributor to the American musical scene, the world’s musical scene,” Newsom told the Times. “You can’t take his music simply as notes on a piece of paper; he was a much more spontaneous, living, breathing composer who changed ideas every time he performed his work. He was a composer in the sense that Bach or Beethoven could be considered composers. But the unusual element we have in Mingus’ work is something that goes beyond the notes on the paper. If we had tapes of Bach improvising, we would be closer to knowing what he was really doing, but we do have tapes of Mingus doing so. What we have here is documentation of his whole career, recordings, tapes of his composing, recordings made from broadcasts, all kinds of materials that will help students and musicians reconstruct his work. It’s a comprehensive archive unlike for any other composer.”

That treasure trove includes Mingus’ little-known String Quartet No. 1 for violin, viola, two cellos, and voice. Performed just once, in 1972, for a tribute at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, the work was rediscovered a decade ago by cellist and composer Anton Lukoszevieze of the British art-music ensemble Apartment House. In 2019, the ensemble performed the quartet in concert. “String Quartet No. 1 coils together like cotton wool, densely compressed, but also expansive, and always on the move,” music critic Philip Clark wrote in the London Review of Books. “Mingus achieves this apparently contradictory effect through his mastery of counterpoint. Lines weave together into a satisfying whole as, at the same time, grinding harmonic tension throws up their differences. If you unwound all these overlays of line, laying them out in sequence, the piece might last an hour. But Mingus concentrates his material into a taut, lean, and mean structure that doesn’t waste a note and runs for about ten minutes. It reminded me of the string quartets of Bartók, Berg, and Schoenberg, whoseSecond String Quartet, written in 1908, had incorporated a part for female voice. In the Schoenberg, the soprano voice levitates above the ensemble, but Mingus preferred to embed his vocal writing deep in the unfolding textures of the string instruments, which emphasizes the sense of an already condensed music collapsing into itself.”

A performance edition of Mingus’ String Quartet No. 1 has been prepared by Apartment House—with the conventional two violins, viola, and cello instrumentation—and is available from Cambridge University Press.

An Improvisational Symphony

Mingus also wrote nearly 20 orchestral works. But he never fully realized his magnum opus, Epitaph—a 15-pound, 500-page, 4,235-measure, two-hour-long score. A decade after his death, that three-movement symphony became a testament to the scope of his compositional genius. It found Mingus tackling the holy grail of jazz composition—extended-form works—and rivals Ellington’s ambitious 1943 Black, Brown, and Beige. In 1989, a 30-piece orchestra, under the direction of German conductor Gunther Schuller, restored and performed the then-newly uncovered symphony at two concerts at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia. The following year, Columbia Records issued a two-CD recording of the concerts. 


The energetic “Main Score, Part 1,” which opens the symphony, sets the tone for the sprawling, challenging work—the section features a fast-paced procession of measures each echoing the style of a different jazz great from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. According to Washington Post music critic Richard Harrington, Schuller called the performance of Epitaph “one of the most important premieres in the annals of American music.” Harrington goes on: “From its accidental discovery by musicologist Andrew Homzy to Schuller’s restoration, from the innovative computerized score to the mounting of these two concerts, Mingus’ Epitaph has proved to be a major undertaking. There were hints of it in a 1960 Downbeat interview in which Mingus spoke of creating a symphony for jazz improvisers where no one could tell ‘where the writing ends and the improvisation begins.’ There were hints of it at a Town Hall concert in 1962, but that event was so disastrous that the work was subsequently buried by Mingus. 

“His widow, Sue Graham Mingus, recalls, ‘Whenever I complained about things, Charles would point out that this was probably the heaviest burden on his heart, having written this opus that he never performed and that he felt never would be performed.’”

Epitaph, Schuller told Harrington, was “the first work by a jazz-related composer of such duration. The one big problem that jazz never really got around to solving is how to deal with large form, large structure, and long continuities. Charles took a gigantic step in that direction, quite beyond where Duke Ellington left that problem.”

What other Mingus gems lie buried in the U.S. Library of Congress, awaiting a new generation to explore one of the most fertile musical minds of the 20th century as they redefine the meaning of America’s classical music? Let’s give Mingus the final word on that subject: 

“As I say, let my children have music,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Jazz—the way it has been handled in the past—stifles them so that they only believe in the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, maybe a flute now and then or a clarinet. I think it is time our children were raised to think they could play bassoon, oboe, English horn, French horn, percussion, violin, cello. If we so-called jazz musicians who are composers, the spontaneous composers, started including these instruments in our music, it would open everything up, it would get rid of prejudice because the musicianship would be so high in caliber that the symphony couldn’t refuse us.”